“How can I seize new professional opportunities when others still see me the same way?”
My first two years in Mexico City, as a new foreigner in Mexico, the easiest way to get work was to teach English in companies. Bookish, sociable, and with a passion for language and communication, I became the marketable face of a corporate language-training program. This was great at first, but it soon became limiting. As I finished a master’s degree in counseling psychology and co-founded Conversari Communication, I was eager to open new doors as a consultant and workshop facilitator. My problem: to my professional contacts, I was still the English teacher. That’s when I learned…
People treat you how they see you.
It’s not their fault. We are hardwired to form impressions of others within the first 10 seconds of meeting. Once formed, these impressions are hard to change, and they determine the way people treat you, as well as the opportunities and limitations you are likely to face in your personal and professional life.
If people see you as the cool kid, or the big boss, then that’s probably good news for you. But if people see you as an analyst and you want to be director, or if they see you as an English teacher when you want to be a consultant, then you have some personal branding to do!
Personal branding is the active process of crafting and managing your professional identity.
In a nutshell, personal branding is the process of actively shaping the way people see you, so that you will be treated the way you want to be treated, and so that you can attract your preferred opportunities.
Just how did I update my personal brand to move into a different role?… Two steps.
Step One: Clarify your unique value
A successful personal brand starts on the inside. It’s hard for others to have a clear picture of who you are and what you add to an organization if you don’t have a clear idea yourself. Many careers stall and sputter precisely because someone is unsure or unclear about who they are, what they offer to an organization, and what they want.
On my own rebranding journey, I began by formulating my own vision and mission statements, and by clarifying my unique value proposition. Once I knew where I wanted to go, I started to immerse myself in the culture and language of my goal. Before I could communicate a convincing new identity to the professional world, I had to update the programming code of my mind. I read business books, watched YouTube videos, and listened to hours of business podcasts on headphones at the gym. I tried on new language like “unique value proposition,” and looked for opportunities to use these foreign words until they became as natural to me as “present-perfect tense” and “phrasal verbs.” Armed with this coding update, I was ready for Step Two…
Step Two: Manage your professional image
Once you have clarified your unique value and your preferred professional identity, it is time to take inventory of how others actually see you. This “360 image” assessment can reveal hidden strengths as well as image limitations, and let you know just how far you need to go. From there, mount a marketing campaign to introduce the new you. Like any effective marketing campaign, you must use both personal and public channels, in both written and oral forms. Trust takes time and consistency, so the key to creating a strong personal brand is sustaining a congruent message.
Identities are sticky. Our person is formed in community, where we internalize the mirror-images that others people reflect back to us. I was used to presenting myself with an academic air and selling my time for 10 cents to the dollar of a consultant’s rate. To change, I needed the support and feedback of others. To secure a clear new image as a consultant and corporate communication trainer, I had to spend time with other consultants and business professionals who saw me as one of them, and I had to leverage their feedback to make changes in my behavior. Their feedback led me to replace bookish theory in my trainings with executive summaries and a focus on immediate practical application. In my dress, I traded in scholarly sports jackets for business suits. In my body language, I adopted a straighter posture and grew accustomed to larger gestures with open palms.
I also had to make tough choices. If I was going to be a consultant, I had to turn down English teaching jobs—even if that meant economic uncertainty for a while. Transformative change always includes a leap of faith into an unknown new identity. For others to accept my new identity, I had to be clear and congruent with all my actions and communications. That started with updated content and feel to my CV and LinkedIn profiles, updated website bios and new business cards. But that was not enough. I started blogging about organizational development and business communication, I posted business-related content across social media channels, I went to business networking events, and I eventually enrolled in a top MBA program.
We need others to realize our own dreams.
If others see us in the way we want to be seen, their conscious and unconscious support propels us toward our personal vision. If our networks harbor a limiting view of our role in the world, however, we risk being held back instead.
Today, as I write this blog on the way to facilitating a client workshop and attending an entrepreneurship conference with my business partner, I pause and reflect on my continuing personal brand evolution. I still tend to get over-zealous with theory in my trainings, and I still approach my business work with a counselor’s aim to help the people. But I have to smile when I think of teaching English. I can use the simple past tense now: I used to be an English teacher.
Not all training or trainers are created equal. When you think about training, are you prioritizing what will really create change, or what will look good on a resumé?
The course in Leadership begins. The instructor, a PhD in sociology and psychology, gets started:
“Ladies and gentlemen, pay close attention to what I’m about to say. The purpose of this course is to teach you to be better team leaders. At the end of the course I will give you an exam to see if you’ve learned it all. I am going to give you some technical notes to read (185 pages) and my book: “How to be a good leader in 5 steps”. I want to warn you: nothing that you’ve learned before this course will work. Please pay close attention, because I won’t repeat anything. If you get distracted, I will ask you to leave the session. The rules are: leave your cellphone in the basket at the door, don’t interrupt, and leave all questions until the end. Discipline is important – no jokes. Leadership is a serious subject. Are we clear?”
A month later, the company’s director of training asks herself: “Why are the team leaders behaving the same way after that ‘great’ course?” They all passed their final exam and their exit evaluations were satisfactory. There was a course and nothing changed. What went wrong?
All the following things:
- Participants DON’T READ. Contrary to what you might believe, the majority of training participants don’t read – pre-reading, manuals or their own notes. At the end of a course or workshop, they’ll never read or study what they were given. They don’t have time. They expect to assimilate or learn what they need during the course and be able to apply it immediately.
- Participants will behave the way you treat them. If you treat them like students (banning cell phones, passing obligatory attendance, not interrupting the instructor, etc.) they will behave like students. They will sit passively, take notes and pass the exam. They won’t really learn anything.
- A participant needs to know how the course will benefit him and what its immediate application is. If the objective is to “teach” then there is nothing of interest to the participant. Passing an exam is not aan authentic benefit for the participant. The participant needs to know how all of this will apply in the short term.
- Learning – or failing to learn – is the participant’s responsibility. No adult learns by obligation. No one can make them learn. And even when they’ve assimilated the content, if there is no real transfer of information it doesn’t apply. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” doesn’t work on adults.
- Past experience is the starting point for learning. A participant cannot ‘erase’ her experience. Quite to the contrary, it should serve as a springboard. To apply new behaviors, you need to know what to unlearn and in so doing, change your behavior, or how to build new learning adding on to what you’ve already done. Additionally, feedback based on past experience is important and valuable.
- Participants need to see role models of what they’re learning. The trainer is the first model they should be taking examples from. It doesn’t matter how much experience or wisdom trainers have, but what they can model for participants.
- Seriousness – meaning the absence of emotions – doesn’t favor behavioral learning. Science has proven that learning is more powerful and permanent when it is accompanied by emotional experience. Games, role-playing, videos, even debates, among other tools, generate emotions that favor learning.
Are you going to invite teachers with lots of knowledge and experience or facilitators who know how to extract the best learning from participants?
“Successful teams have three things in common: They meet their performance goals. Their members feel satisfied that they are learning/benefiting from being a part of the team. The process the team uses to collaborate sets it up for future success.” From the Darden School of Business:
Clash of the Teammates: How the Ideal Team Works Through Conflict
We respond almost instantly to text messages – and that immediacy lends itself to problems. Whatsapp and other texting platforms are here to stay, and using it for business is blurring the line between personal and professional communication.
A recent NY Magazine article detailed the use of a period to end a text message. Does it make the sender seem insincere, snarky, dismissive? Is it an innocent grammatical symbol? What about what happens in professional settings when we use instant messages to communicate? Do these factors influence workplace communication?
eWeek reports that 80% of professionals are using text messages for business. A top executive will send out dozens of text messages on any given day. The official forms of communication in the workplace that helped mediate messages in the workplace years ago have been replaced by a varied set of tools that everyone has access to at a moment’s notice.
- Check tone: When we write quickly, we may easily forget to check our tone, whipping off answers or abbreviated messages that can cause misunderstandings or worse: injured feelings. Without tone of voice and body language to moderate how your message is interpreted, extra care is needed. That’s why emoticons or emojis can help for personal texts, but should generally be left out of all professional communication.
- Consider purpose: Sending a report via text message and expecting extensive, productive feedback is unlikely. Save texts for simpler, time-sensitive matters.
- Consider your professional image: It is important to understand that though texting has become an integral part of our professional toolset, it does require some time and thought and it is not the same as sending messages to friends. Any instant message sent to professional contacts and colleagues should always include complete sentences and proper punctuation.
- Remember that it’s evidence: Just because you might delete the message or conversation on your phone, it can remain as evidence of your interaction long after. Though it does not need to be formatted like a printed letter, you should always consider that it will need to be as clear as possible, given the shortness of time that the recipient will likely dedicate to it. Read your message out loud, if you can, and make sure it makes sense and is appropriate for the context, recipient or organization.
Becoming an effective leader is challenging as it is. And when we encounter a new culture, sometimes the very characteristics that made us effective in the past can suddenly become handicaps.
Most of us are aware that culture matters, but what do differences mean for our communication on a daily basis? Here’s an example of one “aha!” moment that a client had. A Mexican executive with an MBA from the United States and multiple experiences with multinationals, he was not unfamiliar with multicultural challenges.
However, as a new Mexico country manager for a company based in the U.S., he was receiving comments from supervisors that he was too passive or weak as a leader, as reflected in his participation in meetings. His results were fine. These comments were alarming after a long and successful career as a senior executive.
Looking carefully at how he participates in meetings, he discovered the problem. He had adapted a style of meeting participation that was effective for him in Mexico, but ran counter the expectations at his new company. In Mexico, he knew that if he offered his opinion first in a meeting, out of respect for authority his team would be unlikely to offer countering viewpoints. As a result, he learned to ask everyone’s opinion first, and then offer his last.
In his new company, leaders are expected to “drive the conversation,” pose the challenging questions and be the first to participate. However, embedded in this ethos is an understanding that everyone can share an opinion, and that even conflicting viewpoints are not viewed as disrespectful to leaders.
He then understood that the comments weren’t an attack on his leadership, but rather a clash of cultures. The executive was faced with two challenges: first, adapting his own meeting management style, and second (and far more challenging), preparing his Mexican team for this enormous cultural shift and finding an appropriate middle ground. This “aha” moment allowed him to open dialogue for his own success and that of his team.
Share with us below your cultural “aha” moments!
The latest research on the importance of manager feedback skills – with or without an annual review rating system in place:
“There are only a few managers that can provide great feedback without a rating. The vast majority of managers aren’t good enough to work in a system without a rating.”
-Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB.
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